Archdeacon: Oakwood grad keeps putting his best foot forward

It’s the only time in his football career when Michael Hoecht put his best foot forward and was not rewarded.

Today is My Cause My Cleats day in the NFL.

Players and coaches across the league will wear specially-designed cleats that reflect the social concerns and charitable causes they embrace beyond the football field.

This is the seventh season the NFL is showcasing the cleats initiative and this year some 1,000 players from the league’s 32 teams will take part.

Their causes encompass everything from the nutrition programs for children in need, prevention of sex trafficking and curbing teen suicides to supporting single parents, promoting organ transplants and funding research to cure Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Two years ago, Hoecht – the Oakwood High product who was a rookie defensive lineman on the Los Angeles Rams practice squad – took part in the project.

An L.A. artist customized his Nike Alpha Menace cleats into green and brown statement pieces with toothy shark jaws on each side.

Hoecht wore he showy kicks to draw attention to the Pat Tillman Foundation, which identifies remarkable military service members, veterans and their families and empowers them with academic scholarships and connects them to mentors, peers and developmental opportunities.

To date, some 800 veterans or their family members have gotten scholarships. This year the Foundation hopes to award 60 scholarships, each worth around $22,000.

“I’ve always really liked the story of Pat Tillman and I have a ton of admiration and respect for active and former service members,” Hoecht said by phone after a Rams practice this week for today’s game against Seattle at SoFi Stadium.

“I know the Pat Tillman Foundation does a really good job supporting vets and giving them opportunities when they’re done with their service.

“For me, that’s really important and I wanted to help.”

So he got the shoes two years ago and then immediately after the My Cause My Cleats game – as was the case with most players – his footwear was offered to the public at in an effort to raise funds for his cause.

Although the NFL underscored the fact that 100 percent of funds would go to the individual charities, Hoecht’s cleats – where the starting bid was just $10 – got no takers.

“Yeah unfortunately they didn’t get any bids,” Hoecht said with a bit of a painful laugh when the snub was brought up. “I was a practice squad player and I don’t think there was a lot of demand for those back then.”

But wait!

Not even from his parents who live back in Canada now?

Or from the folks at Oakwood, where he was a football and basketball star and his Rams jersey is now proudly displayed in the Lumberjacks football locker room?

And what about out in Providence, Rhode Island — at Brown University — where he was the captain of the team and an All-Ivy League defender?

“I know, I know,” the 6-foot-4, 310-pound defender chuckled. “What can I say? But I’m not throwing my parents or anybody else under the bus. They already did a lot to get me where I am.

“And hopefully this time someone will bid on the cleats.”

After all the shoes come with quite a story.

Credit: Gabby Hutter/ LA Rams

Credit: Gabby Hutter/ LA Rams

An unlikely journey to the NFL

Hoecht has one of the most inspiring tales in the NFL and it began right here.

Although he was born in Canada, his family moved to Oakwood when he was a preschooler,

“Living in Oakwood is the reason I started playing ball in the first place,” he said. “I’d see the guys playing varsity football and I dreamed of one day being in that locker room, too.

“And the next thing you know, life takes you down the road and you end-up in the NFL.”

Although he didn’t bring it up, in between was quite an unlikely journey.

As a senior at Oakwood — after rushing for nearly 1,600 yards and 17 touchdowns as a 250-pound fullback, making 50 tackles on defense and averaging 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game as a Jacks’ basketball player — he was under-recruited by colleges.

At Brown, he gained 60 pounds and led the team in sacks two years, but the Bears finished dead last in the Ivy League three straight years and then COVID shut down the campus months before the NFL draft.

Undaunted, he made tapes of his workouts and sent them to all 32 NFL teams. The Rams defensive line coach, Eric Henderson, was intrigued, watched every snap of Hoecht’s senior season and L.A. signed him as a free agent after the draft.

Once with the team, Hoecht said he heard Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, the former Dayton Flyers quarterback who’s now the San Diego Chargers head coach, say something that resonated with him:

“He said, ‘Variety is the spice of life’ and that’s pretty much how I’ve lived. And with football I’ve tried to do everything at full speed, too.”

His career ended up on the fast track, too. A year after the practice squad, he was a very active member of the Super Bowl champions.

In the Rams’ 23-20 Super Bowl victory over Cincinnati last February, he drilled Bengals returner Trent Taylor on a punt return less than three minutes into the game.

If you go by depth-chart definition, he’s the backup to defensive lineman Aaron Donald – arguably the best player in football – but if you look closer you see he’s a jack of all trades.

He’s on almost all special teams, has returned a kick 22 yards, strip sacked a quarterback and then recovered the fumble, lined up at tight end and, lately, has been flirting with the outside linebacker positon, as well.

But while you see those bypassed cleats from two years ago belonged to a special breed of football player, it wasn’t so much about him, as it was the journey those purchased shoes could have helped take someone else on.

And that’s because of Pat Tillman.

Giving back

With his flowing blond hair and a derring-do style, Tillman was a hard-hitting safety in the Arizona Cardinal secondary.

But after the 9/11 attacks, he finished out the 2001 NFL season and then, at age 25, he turned down a multi-million contract extension and became an Army Ranger who served several combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two years into his service, he was killed in Afghanistan in what turned out to be a fratricide incident.

He and his family were then further victimized when his death became part of manufactured narrative that ended up a political football.

Initially, the military announced Tillman’s unit came under attack in a Taliban ambush in the mountains of the Khost Province neat the Pakistan border and he had died leading his men into battle. A supine press then ran with that story.

Later, at the insistence of Tillman’s wife and mother — especially when a fellow soldier admitted no enemy troops were present — the Department of Defense finally opened an investigation, which was followed by a Congressional probe.

Eventually several other disturbing facts were discovered:

TiIllman’s uniform and body armor had been burned by fellow soldiers.

His personal notebook went missing.

The Washington Post reported a doctor who examined the body said the wounds indicated he had been shot three times in the head by a weapon fired 10 yards away.

That led to questions of motive.

Tillman’s wife and mother said he had become disillusioned with military bureaucracy and had turned against the war and what it was doing to U.S. soldiers.

And it’s that last part, said Tillman’s wife, Marie, that leads to his true legacy and the real power of his memory.

After her husband’s death, she received donations — some $5 and $10, some $1,000 — from people across the United States.

She and his family and friends started a foundation — — that helps veterans and their families better their lives through education.

Some of the people who have become Tillman Scholars include:

»Karl Holt, who like Tillman joined the military after 9/11, became a special forces medic and ended up breaking his back in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2009. Although severely injured, he treated 10 other soldiers before help arrived. After undergoing 32 surgeries, he got a Tillman scholarship, enrolled at the University of North Carolina and became a trauma surgeon.

»Jonny Kim, who won the silver and bronze stars for bravery in Iraq, used the Tillman scholarship to help get his MD at Harvard and became a NASA astronaut candidate.

»Adrian Kinsella won a Tillman scholarship, finished law school and then put all his legal efforts into bringing his Afghan translator, Mohammed, who was threatened with death by the Taliban, to the United States. The Tillman Foundation joined the cause and wrote letters to Congress and in 2014 Mohammed was brought to America.

»Laura Move, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the wife of a U.S. Marine, got a Tillman scholarship to study neuroscience, specifically traumatic brain injuries, work that would benefit soldiers and football players.

Hoecht will be honoring Pat Tillman again today, this time with a new artist-designed pair of cleats.

He said it’s efforts of organizations like The Tillman Foundation that make NFL players — including 27 other Rams players and 16 of their coaches, as well as a total of 47 players in today’s Bengals-Chiefs game at Paycor Stadium — want to take part in the My Cause My Cleats initiative:

“Football is one of those sports were we’re on TV enough that we have a really good platform to get recognition out there for a lot of really good causes.

“The sport has done a lot for us and this one way for us to give back to the community.”

Once again, Michael Hoecht is putting his best foot forward.

And this time he needs someone to buy those shoes right off his feet.

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